Out On 14th Street

Thursday morning I heard a commotion out on 14th Street, so I stepped out onto my porch aerie and peered down in order to see what was going on.

A concrete truck was parked in the street and a man was hosing down a section of the street, a section of which I’m quite fond.

I should interject that I’m well aware that I have peculiar tastes in landscape and vegetation preferences. I’ve accepted that most of my fellow citizens don’t share these preferences; the result is that I’ve seen many favorite spots obliterated in the name of progress over the years, and I’ve learned to silently console myself with memories.

I went down to the street; I had a murky idea that some exposed bricks, a window into the days when 14th Street was a brick-paved street, were about to be covered up with concrete.

Here’s the spot I was worried about:

I approached the man, who now was directing his hose into the storm sewer. Generally I enjoy talking with street workers, who often appreciate the opportunity to explain what they are doing.

I said, “Nice morning, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, this is one of those days when I appreciate working outside.”

“Where’ve you been pouring?”

“Oh, we had to replace a section of sidewalk up the street on Hampshire. The boss told me to come down here to the storm sewer to clean out my chute.”

I was relieved to hear this. We chatted desultorily about street work for a while, then I bade him farewell and retreated to my apartment. My favored little section of revealed brick street was safe for a while longer!


A Quote From Hesse

Back when I was in my teens the novels of German author Hermann Hesse were wildly popular. I read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf but the novels didn’t really engage me at the time.

I was looking for something to read last night and found a copy of Narcissus and Goldmund in a box of books. It’s quite a story, with echoes of Neitzsche and Jung evident in the depiction of the two main characters: Narcissus the bookish rationalist, a monk devoted to the life of the mind, and Goldmund, who chafes at the strictures of the monastery and roams out into the world, becoming a homeless and shameless seducer of horny women of all ages. Apollo and Dionysius!

There are many fine passages in the novel; this one I consider to be particularly evocative:

… Goldmund knew a spot along the river where the water was not deep; its bed was covered with shards and all kinds of rubbish that fishermen had thrown there. He sat down on the embankment wall and looked into the water. He loved water very much; all water attracted him. From this spot, one could look through the streaming, crystal-threaded water and see the dark vague bottom, see a vague golden glitter here and there, an enticing sparkle, bits of a broken plate perhaps or a worn-out sickle, or a smooth flat stone or a polished tile, or it might be a mud fish, a fat turbot or redeye turning around down there, a ray of light catching for an instant the bright fins of its scales and belly — one could never make out what precisely was there, but there were always enchantingly beautiful, enticing, brief vague glints of drowned golden treasure in the wet black ground. All true mysteries, it seemed to him, were just like this mysterious water; all true images of the soul were like this: they had no precise contour or shape: they only could be guessed at, a beautiful distant possibility that was veiled in many meanings. Just as something inexpressibly golden or silvery blinked for a quivering instant in the twilight of the green river depths, an illusion that contained, nevertheless, the most blissful promise, so the fleeting profile of a person, seen half from the back, could sometimes promise something infinitely beautiful, something unbearably sad. In the same way a lantern hung under a cart at night, painting giant spinning shadows of wheel spokes on walls, could for a moment create a shadow play that seemed as full of incidents and stories as the work of Homer. And one’s nightly dreams were woven of the same unreal, magic stuff, a nothing that contained all the images in the world, an ocean in whose crystal the forms of all human beings, animals, angels, and demons lived as ever ready possibilities.

Quite a riverbank reverie! I enjoy typing out passages such as this, as it forces me to pay attention to syntax and structure, and gives me time to enjoy the imagery. Interesting how Hesse draws the reader in; the first three sentences are short, but the fourth sentence just rambles on forever. So many commas, semi-colons, dashes, and colons! One reason, I surmise, for this tendency towards long sentences is that the book has been translated from the German language, which tends towards such excesses, both in words and sentences.

While re-reading this passage as I typed it out, sentence by sentence, I was reminded of some of the video poetry collaborations of Kathy McTavish and Sheila Packa, such as Black Iris:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKfgPWs9bM8?rel=0&w=560&h=345]

See the resemblance? Hesse’s prose descriptions are of hard-to-make-out shifting images filtered through rippling river-water, while McTavish’s video (accompanied by her electronica/ambient cello-playing) features shifting images which you really can’t make out either. Both pieces, one 20th- century prose and the other a 21st-century amalgam of video, music, and poetry, are dreamy, myth-like works which defy logical analysis. But, as I try to remind myself, there will always be aesthetic works which have to be taken on their own terms.

I do have one question about the Hesse passage: why would someone hang a lantern under a cart? Had Hesse seen this done, as he seems to imply?


Peacock Spider Mating Dance

The Peacock Spider is a tiny arachnid which lives in parts of Eastern Australia. Sharp-eyed entomologist Jurgen Otto was out on a walk and found an area which seemed to be a favorite habitat for the species. A patient soul, Otto got some good-quality video of the courtship of the tiny jumping spiders:

The Peacock Spider (Maratus volans)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GgAbyYDFeg?rel=0&w=560&h=349]

Part Two, complete with musical accompaniment and a Happy Ending:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppP03ERHbUI?rel=0&w=560&h=349]

Notice how the pedipalps seem to convey excitement and interest in both brilliantly-colored male and drab female. It’s difficult to avoid anthropomorphizing these little creatures.


August Morning Photos

When I moved into this four-unit house last May there was a young guy named Paul, a convenience store clerk living directly beneath my second-floor apartment. He and his buddies, several of whom hung out with him at his apartment, were pot-smokers and video-gamers. Paul eventually decided to go back to college and told me he was moving out, and mentioned that his buddy Gerald wanted to move in to the place.

By this time our landlord was in Romania for a year with his wife. I asked Gerald, “So did you talk with the landlord about this before he left?”

“Oh, yeah, we got it all settled.”

I was suspicious, so I e-mailed the landlord; he told me in a return message that he had never met or talked with Gerald.

I usually ran into Gerald every day or so. He didn’t drive and he’d wait for a ride to work in the morning (he was a roofer). I’d see him waiting out on the front step and we’d talk.

After a few days passed with out seeing the guy I began to wonder. Gerald seemed to have disappeared. Either in jail or up and left town, I figured.

Before Gerald disappeared he (I assume) had put a couple of mid-sized potted plants on the wall by his steps. This was a bit odd, I thought; most single guys in their early twenties don’t mess with plants much. One pot contained a yellow marigold and the other was some tropical-looking plant with long lanceolate leaves.

I started watering these plants when I watered my own plants and eventually moved them over to my step wall.

This morning was cloudy, cool, and humid. Good bike-riding weather! At about seven AM I decided to ride over to the garden I share with my friend Jeff, just to see how the plantings were doing and to see if anything needed to be picked. I came down the stairs and saw that Gerald’s tropical plant was slowly unfurling a white blossom. The corolla (actually a spathe, I think) was coiled and white and it was ever-so-slowly attempting to free its tip from a slit in the side of the stem. I realized that the plant was probably a calla lily.

A beautiful sight; I went back upstairs to fetch my tripod and took this shot:

Notice the faint spiral of the coiled spathe, which over the next few days will unfurl as soon as the tip has extricated itself. I’d like to get a photo of the tip coming free. I wish I could safely leave my camera in position and get a time-lapse sequence, but that would be tempting fate and certain nocturnal prowlers of whom I’ve become aware.

I had a pleasant bike-ride to the garden plot, which is located in the back-yard of a friend. I picked a few eggplants and inspected the okra, a tropical-looking plant which originated in India. Since it was early and cloudy the hibiscus-like flowers were still furled. I wished I had brought the tripod with me.

Have a look at this flower and take notice of the maroon patch barely revealed at the base of the diaphanous furled petals. Towards the right is a cluster of chalice-like immature pods:

Another view of the soon-to-awaken flower. I think these photos turned out pretty well, considering that I was the tripod and the light was dim:

The pleated ruffles in the petals were strikingly beautiful, I thought.

Look at the clasping calyxes at the base of these pods in the next photo. How I love low and slanting morning light!

Once I was back home, as always it’s fun to plug the camera into a USB port and see if I captured any “keepers”!


Louis Wain, Schizoid Painter

I think it was around 1962 when a series of flat cardboard boxes began arriving via the mail to the suburban house in Cedar Rapids where my family lived. Of course I was curious that day when the first one arrived, but my mother said, “It’s addressed to your father — you’ll just have to wait until he gets home, honey.”

The parcel turned out to contain the first of many books in a series called “The Time/Life Science Library”. There was one book in the series which really fascinated me: “The Mind”. It was full of lurid accounts of mental disorders; I, as an eight-year-old who had led a sheltered life, was just amazed and fascinated. In particular the sequence of cat paintings by Louis Wain intrigued me. Those images documented the man’s descent into full-blown schizophrenia in a way that no prose description could have done.

I must confess that I was vividly reminded of those paintings years later during my LSD period in the mid-1970s.

My favorite of the series of paintings is the one at the top of this post. It is fairly representational, without the floridly weird geometric excesses of Wain’s later paintings. There’s something about that cat’s eyes…

Here’s a Youtube video which presents Wain’s descent into madness in a sequential fashion:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8MIe7_u_tA?rel=0&w=425&h=349]

There is some resemblance to Van Gogh’s later paintings, in particular his later self-portraits, such as this one:


A Tomato With a Tentacle

I was fixing some lunch today and picked up a ripe home-grown tomato, intending to slice it. Then I noticed a strange tentacle-like growth drooping along one side of the succulent fruit.
I was also reminded of an elephant’s trunk.

So strange — what could have caused this anomaly? Perhaps my garden was visited by a cephalopod while the tomato plant was flowering. I deferred lunch and took the tomato, a tripod, and my camera out onto my back porch and perched the tomato on the railing. After my photo shoot the briefly reprieved tomato succumbed to the knife. While I ate the tomato I kept thinking I detected a hint of calamari in its taste …

Photos of such vegetable deformities are a summer-time staple of rural and small-town newspapers.

An imagined scene:

Joe, a farmer who lives a few miles from the village, pulls up to the local weekly newspaper’s office.

He hops out of the battered “work truck” cradling a lumpy yellowish object in his arms.

Joe walks into the building. Antiquated Linotypes and printing presses are visible through an open doorway at the end of the hall. He knocked on the door of the editor/publisher’s office.

“Come on in!”

As Joe proudly displays his object, which turns out to be an oddly shaped banana squash, the editor (imagine him wearing a green eye-shade) leans back in his swivel chair and says, with a smile:

“What the hell ya got there, Joe?”

“This mornin’ I was out in the garden and found this here bananer squash. Don’t it look like Elmer Fudd? See, here’s the nose, and here’s where the chin should be. The eyes ain’t quite right, but still! And it even has a hat, see?”

The editor chuckled and pulled his old Speed Graphic camera from a desk drawer.

“Here, Joe, set ol’ Elmer up on this table and I’ll take some pitchers. Here, you stand behind the table and hold it up, and I’ll get you in the shot, too.”

After the impromptu photo shoot was over the editor said, “Well, Joe, you’ll see your Elmer in the paper this Saturday. Thanks for bringin’ him in — been a mite short on news this week!”


The Perfume Of The Earth

One of my favorite scientifically-oriented blogs is Small Things Considered. Veteran microbiologist Moselio Schaecter and fellow-writer Merry Youle are the hosts of the blog. Some of the material is overly technical for me, but many of the posts are fascinating glimpses into the microbial world.

The blog also features posts by other microbiologists. This one by Mark Martin I found to be of particular interest. Did you ever wonder what generates that distinctive odor which arises from the earth after rain has fallen upon dry soil? It’s a pleasant and earthy odor, and it turns out that a bacterially-generated chemical called geosmin is the major component of that smell. A quote from the post:

Certain cyanobacteria and actinomycetes synthesize geosmin, a volatile chemical that is reminiscent of potting soil. (Norman Pace has been known to wax lyrical here, calling geosmin “the breath of the microbial world.”)

Read the post linked below and you will learn the source of that distinctive “ocean smell”:

A Microbe By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet…

In general, Small Things Considered is exemplary, a science-oriented blog which can be comprehended by a reasonably well-educated reader. The writers make an effort to connect microbiological research to the world that the layman perceives. Keep up the good work, Elio and Merry!


Looking Through An Old Woman’s Eyes

Here in Quincy the weather has been so pleasant. It’s a joy to be outside, with moderate temperatures, a cool breeze, and the sun shining benignly rather than oppressively. It’s been rather dry, though, and we need a rain.

I came downstairs to water my potted plants this morning. I found my neighbor Beulah bustling slowly out in a patch of grass beneath one of the tormented soft maple trees. She’s 85 years old and lives alone in an apartment downstairs. I enjoy talking with her when we run into each other.

I approached her and said, “What are you doing, Beulah? Isn’t it a nice morning?”

“Beautiful morning! It feels like fall. I’m sweepin’ up some of the grass clippings and tree debris. It’s supposed to rain tonight and I’d like the moisture to be able to get to the grass!”

This didn’t really seem at all necessary, but I suppose she was just looking for something to do outside. She said:

“Larry, when I’m done with this I’m going to sweep your steps!”

Sweep my steps? Did they need sweeping? I looked at them and noticed for the first time accumulations of rotted leaves and maple keys built up in the corners.

I confess I must not have any Scrubby Dutch or German blood, as I don’t tend to notice such things. I wasn’t going to let this frail old woman sweep my steps, though!

I made a mental attempt to see those steps through the eyes of a woman who was born in 1926. Yeah, those steps needed sweeping!

“Beulah, there’s a broom just inside the street door; I’ll go get a dustpan and get those steps swept right now.”

“You know,Larry, all of the years I’ve lived here not one of the upstairs tenants has ever swept those steps!”

I swept those steps until the corners were revealed and the surfaces were spotless.

I left Beulah to her puttering and watered my plants; for some reason this incident warmed my heart.


Old Blog Photos: Series Three

Commenter Darrell e-mailed me some more photos which he had saved from previous incarnations of this blog; these Hannibal scenes date from around 2006-2008.

This one was taken from the little-used iron bridge which spans Bear Creek and leads to the ruins of the Marblehead Lime Co. I liked the reflections on the river’s surface:

Shots like this next one make me glad I get up early! This is a view of a sunrise from up on Grace Street:

This one might have been taken in 2009. The green-roofed building is the newly built and state-run Supervisory Center (doesn’t the name sound Orwellian?), a half-way house for ex-cons which helps them prepare for life in the bad old Real World. In the background can be seen the wooded limestone ridge south of Bear Creek where the Marblehead quarry tunnels can be found:

Oak stamens floating on the surface of Bear Creek with beguiling tree reflections:

A view of Hannibal from Lover’s Leap with a storm approaching from the north:

Here’s a photo Darrel took on one of his visits to Hannibal, a nice shot of the hills below Saverton; an autumnal scene. Saverton is a small town a few miles south of Hannibal, originally built as a company town for Continental Cement Company employees. Saverton was devastated by the flood of 2008:

It’s quite a treat to have photos I thought were lost forever wend their way through the fiber-optic cables and end up in my Inbox! Thanks, Darrell.


Politics As Usual

I try not to pay too much attention to politics. I tend to dislike the sort of person who is attracted to such a career and the intellectual content of most political statements is low.

I’m with Henry Thoreau on this issue — here’s a quote I’ve always liked from his essay Life Without Principle:

Those things which now most engage the attention of men, as politics and the daily routine, are, it is true, vital functions of human society, but should be unconsciously performed, like the corresponding functions of the physical body. They are infrahuman, a kind of vegetation. I sometimes awake to a half-consciousness of them going on about me, as a man may become conscious of some of the processes of digestion in a morbid state, and so have the dyspepsia, as it is called. It is as if a thinker submitted himself to be rasped by the great gizzard of creation. Politics is, as it were, the gizzard of society, full of grit and gravel, and the two political parties are its two opposite halves- sometimes split into quarters, it may be, which grind on each other. Not only individuals, but states, have thus a confirmed dyspepsia, which expresses itself, you can imagine by what sort of eloquence. Thus our life is not altogether a forgetting, but also, alas! to a great extent, a remembering, of that which we should never have been conscious of, certainly not in our waking hours. Why should we not meet, not always as dyspeptics, to tell our bad dreams, but sometimes as eupeptics, to congratulate each other on the ever-glorious morning? I do not make an exorbitant demand, surely.

It’s hard to avoid politics while cruising the ‘net, though. Here’s an interesting “liberal” graphic which I happened across: